You’re moving right along on your new project.  The characters are no longer one dimensional, the plot’s moving at just the right pace; then suddenly you sit down at the computer/typewriter/legal pad and nothing happens.  You’re stuck.

Nothing is more chilling to a writer than an empty page.  I outline extensively to avoid them, but even with that weapon in my arsenal, sometimes I still don’t know what comes next, or how to put it there.

Through the years I’ve developed coping strategies to get me moving again.  In hopes one of them will help you, here are some to choose from.

Blocking Background Noise:

While I can’t write to music as many of my colleagues can, I have discovered a few noise-blocking tricks to help me focus.  Background noise can pull us out of our stories and make it difficult to jump that abyss to a completed page.  Pandora’s “ambient” station plays New Age music, complete with environmental sound effects. Pandora is free, as well.   If that’s too “musical” to suit you, another good bet can be found here at Sleepbot Environmental Broadcast.  You’ll have to set it up to play on your system, but I followed the iTunes instructions easily.  Now I can turn the station on or off from iTunes without going online.  More options are available under set up. (more…)

While I’m out of town visiting family and waiting for the arrival of the new grandchild, I thought I’d share a blog I wrote for Fresh Fiction in June of 2009.  A search tells me it never appeared here, so enjoy now.  I’ll be back with new blogs next week.

Which comes first, the novel or the title?

There is no question that authors are odd. We hear voices in our heads. We stare blankly at walls for hours, leaving those around us to wonder if we have, without fanfare, passed away. We save things other people toss out or never possess in the first place. Real estate circulars. Missing children inserts. Photographs that show nothing except, perhaps, the curve of a cheek or the shape of an eye. We keep files. Oh yes, we keep lots and lots of files. Jotted notes of overheard conversations. Newspaper articles about mortgage fraud. Three word phrases that might vanish in the night.

Authors are almost always asked where our ideas come from. No matter how many times I’m asked, I’m not annoyed by this question. In fact I can relate. Myself, I wonder about architects, particularly those who design hotel lobbies and airports. Where did those ideas originate, and can we please extinguish the source? Or artists. Take Jackson Pollock. What possessed the man, other than an urge to pour lots of paint on lots of canvas? (more…)

Since I’m traveling today, I thought you might enjoy a blog I wrote last fall for Suzanne Beecher who runs “Dear Reader“ book clubs online.  Suzanne’s book clubs are a great way to have book excerpts sent directly to you each weekday, in a genre you choose.

For the record, and a year later, I did NOT plant potatoes this growing season.  But next year?  Who knows?

Enjoy.

I’ll confess I’m enchanted by thoughts of buried treasure. Novelists are a romantic lot. My practical friends see tumbledown houses and vacant lots, and they think about septic fields and new construction. I see stories buried in the rubble. Beside that spindly willow? A chest with great-grandmother’s pearls and a photo of the man she lost, protected against the ages in a heart-shaped locket. Under those decaying steps? Letters from a long dead president, explaining why he did or didn’t go to war, and how the decision haunted him.

With that in mind, with thoughts of a hundred possibilities, today I dug in my own front yard. Not for gold coins. Not gold jewelry. Yukon gold potatoes. Buried last spring where sensible people would have planted shrubs. Buried with hope and ceremony and tender, loving care. (more…)

Marsy's Jars from Stock.xchng smaller.jpgThose of you who have “fanned” my page on Facebook know I like to cook.  In fact you’ve probably figured out that I like to cook from the Internet.  And it’s true. 

The Yahoo homepage I stare at every morning, is a one of a kind original, with feeds and “widgets” chosen by me. My page has nine news sites with several headlines apiece, ranging from the New York Times to BBC New World Edition.  I have several non-news magazine feeds, some standards like weather forecasts for places that are important to me, the night’s TV listings, my horoscope so I can see how wildly inappropriate it is or be stunned when it’s not, a couple of review sites–books and restaurants–and then, my favorites.

Recipe blogs.  Five of them, plus several more bookmarked as feeds.

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IMG_1038.JPGSometimes, there are no words.  It’s that simple.  There are entire days, sometimes stretching to weeks, when putting together an intelligent sentence is a remarkable challenge.  Most often these days occur when I’m writing a synopsis.

A synopsis is a story summary. Picture me sitting down over coffee one morning to give you a blow by blow of everything that’s going to happen in my new book.  That’s a synopsis. 

Editors expect to see a synopsis with every book I write.  After all, they want to be sure this is a book they’ll be happy to publish.  They also want to be sure another author isn’t writing a novel for them that’s stunningly similar.  It does happen.  After all ideas are out there for anyone to pluck from the idea tree. Sometimes we leap for the same one.

Right now I’m writing the synopsis for Sunset Bridge, my summer 2011 novel for Mira Books.  I honestly thought the synopsis would be simple, since I knew so many things that were going to happen.  Unfortunately 60 something books into this career, I still make that mistake.  Nothing about telling a story is simple, nor should it be. You think I’d remember.

This week I’ve been horribly stuck.  Stuck, as in, noting the position of every blade of grass in my back yard.  Stuck, as in, playing endless games of Jewel Quest 3 instead of staring at a blank computer screen.  And stuck, as in giving up.

In the end, that’s what I did.  Because I had another project looming, I decided to abandon my office for my sewing room, and once decided, I couldn’t leave quickly enough.  I had to finish my stockings for the Season of Grace block of the month project I’m doing with quilt designer Pat Sloan.  Since I wasn’t writing anyway, escape sounded promising.

I stalked into the sewing room with the idea of thinking about my synopsis while I pinned and stitched.  I forgot the story the moment I crossed the threshold.  Instead I sewed and listened to a paranormal mystery, as different from Sunset Bridge as Twilight is from The Help.  Not once did I think about my book, but when I took my evening walk with my husband, I outlined exactly what was going to happen next, beginning to end, who the new characters were and why they’d arrived.  The problems had resolved themselves.

I’m back at work on the novel now, and the stockings are finished.  The synopsis is going well, although it’s still a tender young thing.  I’ve learned my lesson, though.  Creativity is a river inside us.  As the Chinese proverb warns: “Don’t push the river; it flows by itself.”  It does indeed, if we get out of the way and let it.  Sometimes dipping our toes in the water from another section of the riverbank is all we need. 

Arlington Snowmageddeon.jpgAs I’ve told you before, I’m a confirmed Brainstormer, or BSer, as my group fondly calls itself.  I just finished a week in Sarasota, Florida with my brainstorming friends working on ideas for our upcoming novels.  Please remember, the plans for this event were laid months ago.  We didn’t check weather maps or consult a crystal ball.  I had no idea that the Washington DC area, where I live, would have a historic snowstorm, the largest on record, while I was away, or the view from my front windows would be the one in this photo.  No idea, nada.

But wow, did we choose our week well, or what?  I’m a great fan of history.  I just prefer not to witness this kind first hand, particularly not when my author friends are calling, our view is a lake with an alligator snoring in the sunshine, and the only objects falling from the sky are ospreys searching for dinner.

So what if now that we’re finished, I can’t get home again?  Southwest Airlines apparently objects to 30″s of snow on airport runways, but no problem for me.  I am snugly settled at my brother’s house in Tampa for the duration, having at brith been lucky enough to acquire a sibling who would have the good sense to live not far from the very airport where I’d be forced to wait for Snowmageddeon to cease in Virginia.

Meantime, while I wait, I’m bursting with ideas I want to translate to paper.  A brainstorming group is NOT the same as a critique group.  We don’t read passages of our work out loud to solicit comments and advice. We are all confident in our abilities to put our stories on paper–although when we’re actually doing it, we often wonder. Instead during our week together, in ten one-and-a-half hour sessions and five tarot readings for characters, we worked on skeletal plots, plumping them out  or more often turning them inside out.  Some of us started with bare bones ideas; some just needed advice on a few points in their works in progress (my Sunset Bridge among others).  We plotted an international thriller, a paranormal mystery, an inspirational novel, a traditional mystery, a women’s fiction story.  We discussed at length two ideas for upcoming series–one of those mine.  Some of us worked on different ideas at each session, and some stuck to one. 

My job now that I’m temporarily marooned, is to transcribe the tapes I made during my sessions.  What will I find?  From experience, I’m sure I’ll discover many, many half-formed ideas that lead nowhere.  I’ll listen to ideas that have no appeal or are impossible to implement, ideas that just didn’t fit this story but are worthy of consideration for another, ideas with possible merit.  And finally, there will be THE ideas, the ones that are like  fireworks displays when they erupt.  “Ka-ching” ideas that are the missing pieces I’ve been searching for.  There won’t be many.  But two or three for a week of hard work?  Believe it or not, that’s enough to fuel a novel.

Brainstorming is wonderful.  I’m delighted by my fellow BSers.  I like their wit and their insights.  I love our dinner conversations, when we finally have the chance to catch up with each others’ lives.  But brainstorming is surprisingly exhausting.  At the end of a day’s work, we go to bed early and sleep well. Very, very well.

So once Southwest decrees it’s safe to fly, I’ll go back to the land of ice and snow.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy a few more days of sunshine.  And I’ll put ideas on paper.  Lots of ideas.  I hope that in a year or two, I’ll be sharing them with you.  After all, that’s what this past week was all about. 


Name Tag.jpgWhat’s in a name? 

If you’ve ever named a child, or even a pet, you know the answer.  We don’t take this lightly, do we?  “Oh, we’ll call the new puppy Rover, that’s easy.  We’ll call the new baby Jane or Mary because they’re easy to pronounce and spell.”

Rover, Jane, Mary?  All perfectly good names, but particularly good when chosen for a good reason.  Wonderful Aunt Jane, whose chocolate chip cookies are a favorite childhood memory.  Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Rover, because your father told wonderful stories about “his” childhood Rover, and you’re hoping the new pup will live up to the legend.

Do you remember the wonderfully moving scene in the TV production of Alex Haley’s Roots, when Kunta Kinte’s father held him up to the night sky and gave him his name?  Powerful stuff, names.  They set the seal on who we are.

I have many names.  You might, too.  Although my real name is Emilie, I was called Terry as a child, after Theresa, my middle name.  My mother was Emilie, too, and confusion was avoided this way.  My husband and family still call me Terry, as do childhood friends, people from our churches, and a very few writers.  Every one else calls me Emilie.  I answer to both, and I no longer think of them as two “different” people, as I first did when I began using Emilie on my novels. I am Emilie, Terry, Mom, Aunt, and Grammar.  I love them all.

Character names are nearly as important.  Do you ever wonder how novelists choose names for their characters?  I can tell you how I make my choices, and for me, choosing for characters is only a tad less harrowing than choosing for my children.  I’ve been known to stop work on a book for days, because I don’t yet have a character’s name that really suggests their personality, dreams, wishes, faults, and strengths.  Suggests who they are to whom, you might ask?  To me, of course.  Because my take on a name may not be yours.  But then, it’s my book.

First, I look at ethnicity.  My Boston Brahmin heroine would most likely not be called Rosita.  If she were, there might be a fabulous story behind the name that I would need to discover and share with my readers.  Rosita would be a major piece of characterization. 

Second, I look at the first letter of a name.  Have you ever been confused in a novel because there are four characters that begin with R?  As novelists, we want to avoid confusion.  I make lists to be certain I don’t really have a Robin, Rosita, Rose, Rita. It’s important not to pull my readers out of the story. 

Third, suitability of a name for a certain time period.  Did you know that the Social Security Administration  keeps lists of the most popular names for each year from 1879 forward?  You can also get popular names by state, and popular names for twins.  It’s helpful to remember that children in 1945 weren’t often named Britney or Tiffany.

Fourth, suitability of a name for a certain region.  For the Shenandoah Album series, I researched cemetery listings in the area where my novels were set, and used surnames that were part of Shenandoah County’s history.  In Happiness Key, Wanda is from Florida, while Tracy is from California, names that work for those regions.  Their names were also checked by popularity for their birth years. 

Fifth, and this is completely subjective, if a name doesn’t spring immediately to mind, I go through baby name lists, helpfully available online these days, and let my first impressions guide me.  When I have four or five possibilities I’ve checked out, I live with them a bit.  Sometimes the names affect the characterization, too.  Wanda might be a completely different character if I’d named her Thelma.  In fact I can guarantee it.

A Rose can indeed be a Robin or a Rita, but everything else will change when the name does. That’s part of the mysterious process of writing a novel.  For me, it’s also part of the fun.  

Enter a drawing to win a happiness keychain and an autographed copy of Emilie’s Happiness Key. Details here.

 

Whole Grain bread.jpg

It’s been quiet at Southern Exposure. I arrived home from Europe all set to do the final read through and editing of Fortunate Harbor, next summer’s Mira and the sequel to Happiness Key, which is at your bookstore now.  Since my husband went on to Greece, I had a quiet house, and nothing on my schedule.  I was ready to roll.  Then Nemo, the family four-legged, ate something he shouldn’t have.  What?  When?  Who knows.  He’s a beagle.  For those who know beagles, that’s all I need to say.

Nemo seems to be feeling better, and despite obstacles like sleepless nights and late evening vet visits, Fortunate Harbor is in New York waiting for my publisher’s keen eye and steady hand. 

I’m free.  Free!  And thrilled to announce it here.

I’m not free for long, of course.  Very soon I delve into A Truth for a Truth, my next Ministry is Murder novel.  Since I love Aggie, we’ll have a great reunion.  But for now, I’m on my own for a few days, feeling rested, creative and full of smiles.

To celebrate, I’m baking bread.  This is nothing new, I bake all our bread.  But this morning it feels special.  I have plenty of time to play with the recipe, add this and that, and enjoy the experience.  I also have plenty of time to share my favorite recipe with you.

I found my recipe for Oatmeal Bread at Yankee Magazine online a couple of years ago when I had several cups of leftover oatmeal.  Since then it’s become my standard, the bread I go back to time and time again.  It’s healthy and delicious, plus it cries out for creativity. 

Today I’m using 2 cups of cooked Wheatena instead of oatmeal, adding a cup of chopped Virginia apples–fresh, not dried–and a small handful of chopped walnuts.  I always use King Arthur’s white whole-wheat flour but since this bread looked a bit heavy, I substituted a cup of unbleached white for some of the wheat.  I used molasses today, but honey or maple syrup are good, as well.

If I don’t have leftover cereal, I love using the instant flavored hot cereal packets, like oatmeal with less sugar or Quaker’s Simple Harvest.  I put three in a 2 cup measure, add boiling water, stir and cool.  I’ll use less sweetening if I do this.  But the variety of flavors makes a variety of breads.

I often add chopped dried apricots, cranberries or blueberries.  I often add chopped nuts or seeds.

In other words, I never make this bread the same way.  I add whatever inspires me at that moment.  The original recipe came from Yankee magazine, but I make it my own.

Writing is much the same.  There are recipes a novelist has to follow.  Among other ingredients we need characters, plot, setting, theme, suspense, a climax and conclusion, plus an opening that guarantees our readers will continue reading.  If we write in one genre only, we have a recipe we use time and time again, because a certain result is expected.  We can’t set out to make bread and end up with beef stew.  But every book turns out differently, because even though some elements stay the same, the possibilities for creativity are enormous.

I never tire of making bread.  I never tire of writing novels.  I never wake up in the morning and say “same old, same old.”  Because each loaf and each book is a new, fresh challenge. 

Do you bake bread?  Do you want to share your favorite recipe here?  Comment away please.  I’ll look forward to seeing your own brand of creativity and read your recipes with pleasure.

Oh, and if you have a solution to keeping a dog from eating everything in his path?  Pass that along, too.  Nemo might not appreciate it, but Emilie certainly will. 


Spam.jpgWaste not, want not.  In this time of scarcity, anxiety and making do, I recently felt compelled to use something I have in abundance.  I bet you have it, too.  That’s right.  Spam.  And not the kind that comes from Hormel.

Maybe I have too much time to think, or maybe some of the hilarious subject lines I’ve received just finally got to me, but for the past few weeks I’ve been collecting the best.  When someone asked “Is your skills about to expired?”  I decided to see.  I never had much skill as a poet, but I decided to find out if what little I once possessed has indeed expired.  You be the judge.

So here goes. I’ve made the best of my collection into a poem.  These are all genuine subject lines, but I’ll confess to adding a conjunction and punctuation.  I shudder to think what some of them were promoting, but the actual emails remain a mystery. 

If you’re feeling creative, you, too, could give this a try.  After all, this is a “use what you have” time in our history.  Although one of these lines is a bit “iffy”, I’ve tried to avoid what seem to be obvious attempts to sell Viagra or worse.  You try that, too.

And without further ado? 

IS YOUR SKILLS ABOUT TO EXPIRED?

 

With regards

Accidentally sent you money

You could make $24,000 in 24 hours

So that. . ?

 

Money means nothing when you can’t feel the taste of life.

Natural powers will rejuvenate your health and looks

Stay free and win

Create the life you’ve always wanted.

Look into the future with enthusiasm but

Come one hour later.

 

In Russia, sometimes it rains cement.

Strippers help Las Vegas area schools

Show me your watch and I will tell you who you are

Say a few words here. No?

 

Should I call your wife?

“Tomorrow March 25 between 9:30 and noon, CBS Paramount pictures will be filming a TV scene on the Potomac River near the Key Bridge in which special effects (loud noise and fire) will simulate a small water vessel being blown up.  This will be a heavily monitored and controlled event lasting only a few seconds.  There is no cause for alarm.”

Burning boat.jpgWell, I’m awfully glad my county e-bulletin just cleared that up. Because tomorrow, there I’d be, close enough to Key Bridge to feel the rumble,  in the midst of introducing a brand new character, who will add enough intrigue to Fortunate Harbor to shake little Happiness Key to its foundations, then. . . 

KABOOM!*%$# 

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